A US War with Iran – Not in Israel's Strategic Interest

A "common sense" view in Israel is that an American war against Iran would be desirable or even gainful. This view is erroneous because US President Trump's underlying strategic posture is indecipherable and unpredictable. Opinion

US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Ignacio D. Perez

Sometimes, strategic truth is counter-intuitive. Although "common sense" seems to suggest that any US war against Iran could usefully diminish the Islamic Republic's overall power position and (correspondingly) strengthen Israel, such thinking is either mistaken or contrived. To be sure, there are no suitably scientific ways of assigning probabilities in such circumstances because reliable assessments of probability must always be based upon the discoverable frequency of pertinent past events.

Still, it's still not difficult for Israeli planners to figure out that any openly incoherent US military policies in the Middle East should be unwelcome in Jerusalem/Tel Aviv.

What exactly does Donald Trump have in mind for an Iran conflict? Although deliberately ambiguous, this belligerent orientation (the Iranian president has recently called it "genocidal") could expectedly or unexpectedly produce a shooting war. Once underway, such an exchange could more-or-less promptly involve Israeli forces. This could happen, moreover, if such involvement were unwitting or inadvertent. And whether or not Jerusalem had first been given any tactical "heads up" by Washington.

In a near worst-case scenario, a major US-Iran war would come to Israel as a catastrophic fait accompli, a multi-pronged belligerency wherein even the most capable preparations in Jerusalem/Tel-Aviv would prove inadequate. In expressly "Clausewitzian" terms, this condition would reflect what the Prussian strategist famously called "friction" in his classic On War.

In war – any war – friction represents the calculable difference between "war on paper, and war as it actually is."

In war – any war – there can be no more gravely important difference.

Once tangibly caught up in a "no doctrine" war against Iran launched by US President Trump, Israel's senior strategists would need to very accurately anticipate Iranian surrogate attacks on high-value targets. Plausibly, this Intelligence Community/MOD operational challenge could sometime extend to the country's Dimona nuclear reactor. Already, in the past, in 1991 and 2014, this sensitive facility came under rocket and missile attack from Iraqi and Hamas aggressions respectively.

In any upcoming war with the United States wherein Tehran would regard certain direct attacks upon Israeli targets as "retaliations" for the initiating American strikes, Iranian forces might gain effective operational access to hypersonic rockets or missiles. Should this acquisition take place, Israel's capacity to shoot down hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs) and/or hypersonic cruise missiles (HCMs) could be significantly diminished.

One reason for suggesting this portentous narrative is that it could be to Tehran's perceived advantage to bring Israel into the war. Striking the US homeland itself, after all, would be more difficult for Iran and more likely to elicit assorted intolerable reprisals. Also worth noting is that any Trump-initiated war against Iran would strengthen Saudi military power in particular, and Sunni Arab military power more generally. For the moment, of course, such potential strengthening seems vastly less worrisome to Israel than any further Iranian militarization.

But there can also be no assurances that the Saudis or their Gulf State allies would somehow be intrinsically "good for Israel," or even "better for Israel."

While seemingly benign in the short run, any such Trump war-created or war-enhanced alignments could prove dangerous to Israel in the longer-term. If one takes into account all possible synergies, such danger could at some point become existential

There is more. Should the Trump-led United States one day find itself in a two-front or multi-front war – a complex conflict wherein American forces were battling in Asia (North Korea) and the Middle East simultaneously, Israel could promptly find itself on its own. For this complicating scenario to be fully appreciated, moreover, Israeli strategists should consistently bear in mind that the "whole" of any deterioration caused by multi-front engagements could exceed the sum of all relevant "parts."

Israeli strategists and planners – like their American counterparts – must remain aptly sensitive to all conceivable synergies.

From the American point of view, war history can be relevant here, but also less than reassuring.

Core questions need to be acknowledged. Looking back, why were the Americans so sorely mistaken in Vietnam and other places? Were they already being misled by poor presidential leadership? Even as a free people, have they simply been incapable of selecting capable candidates for high public office?

Thomas Jefferson would likely have replied to these questions straightforwardly. Against John Adams, who divided classes in America according to a now-curious bifurcation of "gentlemen" and "simple men," Jefferson chose to identify a different measure. According to Jefferson, embracing what then amounted to an oddly revolutionary dialect, the criterion of class in the new nation should hinge instead upon degree of confidence in popular self-government.

Even for Thomas Jefferson, there were firm constraints on who should and should not be allowed to participate. But the principal author of America's Declaration did expressly favor those who would identify with "the people" over those (like Adams) who were inclined to fear "the people."

While Adams had been most urgently concerned with stemming off violent actions by the "mob," Jefferson's preoccupation was different. It was designed to prevent oppression of Americans by a democratic government.

After the long-forgotten War of 1812, still hidden away awkwardly in America's "lost" column, the first generally acknowledged American military failure was Vietnam. However, we might ultimately prefer to assess this all-too glaring defeat, it had been a badly misconceived conflict from the start. To the point, Vietnam never made a scintilla of conceptual or common sense.

Never.

It too had begun with gratuitously childish talk of "punishing" a presumed enemy.

It began, even before Tonkin, with increasingly shrill American threats to "tailor reprisals" and to "fire across the bow."

Even today, some of my US four-star (retired) military friends and co-authors would argue that Vietnam might have been "won." In their professional judgment, I would then be advised, the real problems had been narrowly tactical, and not insuperable. Back then, they would continue, more lethal patterns of bombing could still have made a vital difference.

"If only..."

Such less restrained patterns might have "worked."

But these four-star friends seem to have forgotten their Clausewitz.

For Carl von Clausewitz, the still properly esteemed author of On War, the always-determining standard of reasonableness for any military contest must lie in its expected political outcomes.

Recalling also Tacitus, and the authoritative views of my distinguished military friends notwithstanding, it would have been pointless, in the steaming jungles, to "make a desert and call it peace."

The core metaphor here was always deceptive. South Vietnam, a concocted artifact of the Eisenhower-era Geneva Accords (1954), was never a falling "domino." As to the American Order of Battle crafted for Southeast Asia, it never had even a narrow sliver of utility. On Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's calmly simplifying chalkboards, "counter-insurgency warfare" had always looked determinedly neat and tidy.

But in its actual and incremental implementation, as we now know only too well, CIW became something else entirely.

For years, similarly more-or-less futile American wars have been underway in Iraq and Afghanistan.  

In time, for both Iraqis and Afghans, once-presumed oases of stability will regress to what seventeenth-century English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, would have called a "war of all against all." At best, it will end in these hideously fractured countries just as if these wars had never even been fought.

Status quo ante bellum.

Over the years, with the now obvious exception of North Korea, America's principal doctrinal enemy has changed, from "communism" to "Islamism" or "Jihadism." This time the ideological adversary is real, not merely presumptive. But it is also a formidable adversary.

Even this conceptually-legitimate enemy remains a foe that can never be defeated, at least not in any tangible sense and not on any of the more usual or traditional battlefields.  

If a particular Jihadist enemy has seemingly been vanquished by US military forces in one country or another, it will re-group and reappear elsewhere. After Iraq, after Afghanistan, even after Syria (which now ends "victoriously" with US support of a genocidal regime that has been historically hostile to Israel), America will face resurgent adversaries in such far-flung places as Sudan, Mali, Nigeria, Yemen, Somalia, Egypt, and perhaps even Bangladesh or "Palestine."

Now, in the Middle East, an American president and his misguided National Security Advisor are sounding alarm bells over Iran – this after the United States, not Iran, unilaterally withdrew from an international legal agreement that was less than perfect, but still better than nothing.

When all such factors are taken into account, there remains a residual argument (one that might understandably be anticipated in Israel) that a US-generated war with Iran would de facto amount to an anti-nuclear preemption or some similarly useful act of "anticipatory self-defense." Here, of course, the American initiated war would be widely regarded as "cost-effective" or "net gainful" in Jerusalem/Tel Aviv. This assessment, however, would be more of what Sigmund Freud would call "wish fulfillment" than of any serious analysis.

This is because there could then be only a plausibly tiny likelihood that American bombs and missiles would have been adequately and comprehensively targeted on multiplied/hardened/dispersed Iranian nuclear infrastructures.

All things considered, a US Trump-generated war against Iran would utterly be contrary to Israel's rudimentary national security interests and obligations. Any glib reassurances to the contrary from Jerusalem or Tel Aviv would be sorely mistaken, possibly disingenuous and prospectively lethal. If Israel still wants to look to this American president for geo-strategic leadership, it would betray all previously well-founded security commitments to intellect and intelligence.

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Louis René Beres, a frequent contributor to IsraelDefense, is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. He lectures and publishes widely on matters of Israeli security and nuclear strategy.